By Mike Baillie
What does it mean to be a man? At my previous job it was a question we often ran into since a lot of what we did was about creating content for men. What I found most interesting was how so much of what we created was informed by a particular idea of masculinity or manhood – and man,was that idea meticulously mapped-out and maintained. Think man, think six-pack abs, think career-orientated, think sex-six-times-a-day if he could find a woman willing enough. Think sports fanatic, think style, not fashion; think grooming, not beauty. There was an entire checklist of what it is to be a man in South Africa; a rigorous thought-process of “what guys would do” or “what guys would want to read”. So much so that on one occasion I was informed that “men wouldn’t use the word ‘beautiful’, they’d use ‘stylish’ instead”.
However this checklist is not based on anything concrete. There is no DNA analysis behind it, and it doesn’t relate to some mystical masculine essence. It’s simply a cultural and social idea of what “being one of the guys” means. But what’s important is how what starts out as an idea soon becomes something more prescriptive: An article on “Getting Big Fast” assumes that guys want to be muscular, but in being flagged for men, the article also creates an association between men and muscles. So in essence the magazine didn’t simply reflect on what it means to be masculine, so much as actively creating that meaning too.
Obviously our ideas of manhood are initially drawn from the very society that we would then address through our publication. So part of what we were doing was recycling and reaffirming those ideas of manhood. But again the point is that all those ideas we have about “a real man” are social constructions, and like all social constructions, masculinity is a constructed set of ideas. What I’m saying is that often men behave the way they do not because of genetics or biology, but because of social defintions of how a man ought to act. We have a made-up image of what being a man is about, and we base a lot of what we do, and how we act, around that image, regardless of whether or not it actually exists.
But I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing.
It means that what constitutes manhood is variable, and that there is the possibility of changing what it means to be a man in South Africa. A good example of this change taking place is how the whole idea of male ‘grooming’ is slowly becoming more mainstream. Even 5 years ago the idea of men using cosmetics would have been unthinkable, yet now its gradually becoming more acceptable as definitions of masculinity change with time (and some well-placed advertising).
And this possibility for change is a good thing because, lets face it, our current notions of masculinity are often what drive a lot of violent and destructive behaviour in men. Surely violence against women (and violence in genereal) is an unsurprising outcome when dominance, ‘not backing down’, and a willingness to use violence, are all key markers of an esteemed manhood in South African society today.
What am I saying? I’m saying it’s time we looked more closely at the narratives we construct about being a man. The Brothers for Life campaign is doing this by re-negotiating the links between manliness and sexual behaviour (being man-enough to wear a condom, for example). We need more projects like this which question more, and which problematise standard notions of manhood.
To put it bluntly, I think many aspects of how we define manhood are no longer applicable in South Africa today. Is a masculinity which values male dominance in the home still ok in a country that aims for sexual equality? Is it responsible to encourage an association between “real men” and diesel-guzzling 4X4s at a time when we need to be thinking more about our impact on the planet?
I think part of the reason that we have such phenomenal levels of violence, and violence against women in particular, is because there is a disjuncture between the South African checklist of being manly – being a breadwinner, being dominant, being sexually assertive – and what is in fact possible in the current social, economic, and democratic context. Some men are struggling to live up to traditional notions of masculinity, and are feeling emasculated and vulnerable as a result. Unfortunately it’s often women who are targetted as the cause of this emasculation; women who won’t be dominated, or who are now earning more than men, for example. So-called corrective rapes are a good example of this, illustrating how violence is often used to ‘set women straight’, to ‘put them back in their place’, in an attempt to reacreate a social space where traditional notions of manhood still hold sway.
The irony then, is that masculine violence can be understood as an expression of desperation, of men grappling with definitions of manhood. I must stress that my intention is not to condone their violence, or to diminish the effects thereof. To seek explanation is not to condone. Rather it’s to point to the fragility of masculine identity, and possibility of changing what being masculine is actually about. And most importantly, to stress how important it is that makes those changes.